Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple – Book

Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I speak to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes, and change into yoga clothes only for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today I won’t swear. I won’t talk about money. Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being. Today will be different.”

This is the mantra that Eleanor chants (and since this book is written in the first person it is quite a while before we learn Eleanor’s name – first we know she is Mom to Timby, and she is Joe’s wife, she writes graphic novels, at least she is supposed to be writing one; her husband is a “hand” surgeon who is in much demand in sports circles – we learn all this before we know her name). No matter, the pledge she makes on the very first page tells us plenty about how Eleanor’s life has been going and it seems a bit haphazard, self-absorbed, and borderline clinically depressed. Once she catalogs her faults and commits to change you would think she would catch a break while she tries out her new lifestyle. But right from the very beginning this is a day that cannot be tamed and Eleanor’s creator, Maria Semple, treats us to a manic day that has us (and Eleanor) doubting whether she has already jinxed her life beyond repair. Here is a writer who puts us right inside her character’s head and has us experience this absolutely mind-bending day at the same breakneck speed that it assaults and is assaulted by Eleanor. I have never made a pledge quite this detailed but I have set out to live a day on my own terms and I have found that our best laid plans like to turn and bite us in the butt, just for fun. This book is so good that we fly through it as if the family dog Yo-Yo was pulling us at the end of his leash and when it’s over we’re hardly sure what will happen next – although clearly change is indicated by the events of this whirlwind day. Where does Eleanor’s sister Ivy fit in to the picture? Why doesn’t Timby know that he has an aunt? All is revealed. It’s complicated.

The story ends with Eleanor repeating the same pledge she made the previous day. Although we are unsure, it seems as if she might make some progress after the revelations of the day before. Maria Semple’s current title is Today Will Be Different. She is also the author of the memorable Where’d You Go, Bernadette. She is a true original, and her books are wonderful.

Ripe for Revolution

 

Looking back through forms of governance devised by humans throughout history the problem of wealth distribution has been a consistently destructive dilemma in terms of governmental longevity. When too much wealth concentrates among too few conditions become ripe for revolution; for those at the bottom of the heap to protest, often violently, and to get rid of those with all the wealth and power.

I learn most of my history these days from literature. The intersection between literature and politics, or literature and history, is expansive. If you want to read about monarchs in England and France the choices are so abundant that it is difficult to pick where to start. Investigate the reputations of the authors. Choose those who do in-depth research.

Read the most well-known Russian authors and you will get a pretty fair historical picture of life under the Czars or life during and after the revolution, depending on the title you chose.

To immerse yourself in Rome read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or, on a much less academic level, read the Colleen McCullough Rome books. You can pick almost any time in history and find great fiction that will give you a great feel for the culture and how it affected those who lived in that society and time frame. Today you can just ask Amazon or Google for a list of books, for example, that describe Russia before and after the Russian Revolution where once you would have taken a trip to the library to consult the card catalog.

 

Monarchs, according to accounts, were not always wealthy but their people (except for the religious leaders) were even poorer and monarchs had to appear wealthy in order to look powerful to other monarchs, so they often had to take money or services or land from even their poorest subjects. Monarchs had quite a good run but eventually the emergence of the new democracy/republic in America turned monarchs into ceremonial figures and some form of a parliament or congress actually ran the government. In France it took a violent revolution to end the monarchy but in other nations it was accomplished in an almost evolutionary process, or by political coup.

Rome lasted for so long because the wealthier citizens, who were landowners in Rome and therefore members of the government, were constantly at war adding land and resources to alleviate the frequent famines and economic downturns that plagued Roman life. However, eventually power corrupted the rich and influential men of Rome who decided that they were so superior (the Caesars) that they should govern for life as emperors. Roman government just declined until it lost its preeminent place on the world stage and other nations took over. There was chaos, however, for Roman citizens who were unlucky enough to live during the declining years of the empire

Communism was certainly a response to the consolidation of money and power among a few aristocrats who lived lives of privilege while their serfs eked out brutally deprived lives. We saw communist revolutions in Russia and in China, Vietnam, and other less dramatic transformations. But a century later we find that there is a new wealthy, privileged class that has taken power even in places that experienced serious class upheaval. There are billionaires from every continent on this year’s Forbes list.

All history is somewhat skewed but it is even more difficult to get history from China that you can be sure is free of propaganda. The Chinese Revolution happened through what was basically a political coup by Mao. The Cultural Revolution is full of horror stories. The redistribution of wealth by authoritarian decree did not go smoothly. I read an account by Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (who now live in France). There are also a number of other good fiction books by authors who left China to live elsewhere.

 

Socialism has been practiced in many places but rarely in a pure form. Capitalism is usually mixed into so-called socialist nations making it difficult to know if inequalities occur in societies where socialism is undiluted. I’m not sure we have ever even seen such a society although we have seen smaller scale experiments with socialism and social elements that have been socialized and that still seem to function. Does pure socialism sidestep corruption? I doubt it, because corruption is not inherent in a system of government; it is inherent in the people who run governments (all of us).

However many inaccuracies there are in my very brief trip through history, it seems that we can at least see a precautionary tendency that could save us a lot of grief. It is clear that when wealth gets concentrated among too few people events will conspire to dispossess them of their privilege and reboot the whole process.

Perhaps for a while there will be a more equitable distribution of whatever constitutes wealth in a society, but eventually corruption or skill or luck will recreate a gap between wealthy and poor. For a long time a “middle class” has filled the gap between the very rich and those who live in poverty. If the middle class essentially disappears or feels poor by comparison with the affluent class then they stop acting as a buffer between the two groups and we are back to inviting a coup or a revolution or decline or an evolutionary governmental change.

[I did not look at the patterns in anarchies (do we have any examples that are not science fiction) or tribal societies but there are some accounts of these which still seem to suggest that a class structure still evolved and wars were fought to regain balance (or out of jealousy). In pure dictatorships it is easy to guess that when a moment of weakness appears upheaval will occur.]

Since it is our nature to be corrupt or to hoard or to feel that winning endows us with some sort of divine favor, will it ever be possible to design a culture that values economic balance and truly equal opportunities for all citizens, that acknowledges when people excel but doesn’t allow them to gloat or abuse their success to the deprivation of others. We could. We have really big brains, but it will require us to constantly root out our worst selves. (OK, I should not have gone to see Arrival because it gave the impression that there is hope for humanity yet.) Things are certainly not looking very hopeful right now back here in reality.

What we are seeing right now in America flies in the face of conventional practice? We have overwhelmingly wealthy people staging a coup to take over the government from the people. This is revolution in reverse. It feels bizarre because it is bizarre. These greedy folks feel they don’t have enough money so they want to take their money out of central government and put it back in their states which means that it will eventually find its way back into their own pockets.

Is this a pre-emptive strike? Did Republicans think America was ripe for revolution (even just a progressive one) and decide to take matters into their own hands first. It may work for a while but if the people’s losses are too great it will end up where all societies that are top heavy end up, in chaos until a new order is reestablished (and all you conspiracy cranks, I am not threatening you with your “New World Order,” that fabled Liberal hell that you fear). Assuming we live through the DT years, how will balance be achieved? Will balance ever be achieved? What do you think?

 

Faithful by Alice Hoffman – Book

I’m still reading Alice Hoffman’s books, even after all these years and it is not a difficult task to be a loyal fan because her writing is always pretty flawless. Of course not every book has been a favorite; there are some tales I have liked better than others, and there are still books that really hit the literary spot for me. Faithful is almost in that sweet spot. It a very good book, just not one I would put on her top shelf.  It has a beautiful blue cover and it contains lots of blue imagery, but it seems to lead to nothing more than a very blue mood, or perhaps the ink tattoo artists use.

We begin with two high school beauties, one slightly prettier than the other, with all the confidence and arrogance their looks endow them with. These two are a powerful presence in their school. Almost everyone is either in love with them or envies them. Then life happens. One beauty ends up in a coma in her childhood bedroom with the rose wallpaper. That’s Helene Boyd. The other Shelby Richmond, stops her life to do penance for still being alive. She shaves her head, once adorned with long stylish hair. She wears black clothing. She cuts herself. She slits her wrists. She ends up in a Psych ward where she is raped routinely by an orderly until her mother finds out and takes her home. Helene, it is rumored, can make miracles happen. Shelby can barely survive from day to day.

Someone is looking over Shelby though. Postcards arrive for her in the mail with interesting drawings and messages perhaps from an angel or a savior, or maybe somehow from Helene. They bear cryptic messages such as, “Say something”, “Do something”, “Be someone”.  Shelby keeps them in a box with a blue velvet lining. Who will save her? Will anyone save her? That I cannot tell.

This is not rocket science. It is not the great American novel. It doesn’t employ deep symbolism or leave you in a literary trance. Still it portrays the depths of grief a human soul can plumb and it shows that the way out is a function of time and positive social interactions until one day hope becomes stronger than grief and the two strike a bargain that allows life to offer some sweetness once again. Faithful is a story of our times and one that young adults would find very relevant indeed.

Skyscrapers and Billionaires

 

At some point in my past I found an artistically-sized book of Skyscrapers (still in print). It started me on a journey that described the race in America and eventually around the world to build the tallest building. Since skyscrapers were impossible before steel girders and reliable elevators they are a 20th century phenomenon. Furthermore since the first skyscraper was built on an island of only 24 square miles with perhaps the densest population in the world, the footprint on the ground tends to be small, but the sky is, seemingly, the limit where height is concerned.

As soon as the first skyscraper was built, or perhaps even before it was finished, the race was on to build one that was higher. The race eventually moved to other American cities and then the involvement reached out to the entire globe. Architects and builders design skyscrapers, but rich people, usually men, finance them and get to adorn them with the name of their choice (sometimes with their own name). It is so predictable, this competitive desire to be first, to be the best, the tallest, the biggest. You show me yours and I’ll show you mine, and mine will be bigger. Given the phallic nature inherent in the design of this particular class of buildings it is tough to read them as feminine structures. I am always being sexist I guess, but I just can’t help myself since men are having such difficulty sharing almost everything. It seems natural to compare skyscrapers and billionaires.

Anyway I started to connect this race to build the tallest building with the race to be the biggest billionaire which seems to be the newest prize to grasp in the 21st century. Not all billionaires are hoarders. We can name a number of billionaires who have philanthropic goals and who spend their money in useful ways that benefit man and woman kind. Look at the top ten names on the latest Forbes list of billionaires and you will recognize some of those who feel that they have enough money that they can give back.

#1 Bill Gates $75 B 61 Microsoft United States
#2 Amancio Ortega $67 B 80 Zara Spain
#3 Warren Buffett $60.8 B 86 Berkshire Hathaway United States
#4 Carlos Slim Helu $50 B 76 telecom Mexico
#5 Jeff Bezos $45.2 B 52 Amazon.com United States
#6 Mark Zuckerberg $44.6 B 32 Facebook United States
#7 Larry Ellison $43.6 B 72 Oracle United States
#8 Michael Bloomberg $40 B 74 Bloomberg LP United States
#9 Charles Koch $39.6 B 81 diversified United States
#9 David Koch $39.6 B 76 diversified United States

http://www.forbes.com/billionaires/

The article goes on to give us this information:

By Kerry A. Dolan and Luisa Kroll

“Volatile stock markets, cratering oil prices and a stronger dollar led to a dynamic reshuffling of wealth around the globe and a drop in ten-figure fortunes for the first time since 2009. For our 30th annual guide to the world’s richest, we found 1,810 billionaires, down from a record 1,826 a year ago. Their aggregate net worth was $6.48 trillion, $570 billion less than last year.  It was also the first time since 2010 that the average net worth of a billionaire dropped – it is now $3.6 billion, $300 million less than last year.”

The article lists all 1,810 billionaires if you are interested. Are billionaires feeling nervous that they lost some ground last year? Do powerful people race to climb the billionaire ladder in ways that are similar to the race to build taller skyscrapers? I’m guessing that some do and some don’t. But what does it mean for us that these people, by virtue of their wealth can yank our world around and get it to serve the purposes of the wealthy? What does it mean that 1,810 people have lives so much more expansive that most of the 7+ billion people on the planet? How much money would each of us have if the distribution was more equal? Will wealth always accrue to the few in any cultural model? Are there laws and regulations that insure that those who are already wealthy will get wealthier? Are there ways to pass laws which make sure that money will be distributed more evenly? These people want us to believe that they deserve to be wealthy because they are the smartest, the hardest working, the most creative and they would always rise to the top like cream on milk that has not been homogenized. Homogenized milk tastes good. Wouldn’t earth’s societies work well if the money was spread around a bit more? Even cogitating on these matter is likely to raise an injured outcry, but I am going to see what answers I can find. It is my New Year’s Resolution.

 

January 2017 Book List

 

I started a book list for December and then gave it up. December is just not a normal month in publishing. Readers, writers, publishers, editors and reviewers tend to look back over the year and give us their best-books-lists, or they sometimes have their experts pick the book/s they read or reread in the past year that they thought was/were best for any number of different reasons. I like “best of” lists, especially when folks explain why these were the best choices, in this case, the best books. So in January my list will include mostly books published in December and November. Amazon gives us titles that are out now and ready to buy. The Indies give us, as usual, books purchased most often in December in their shops. Publisher’s Weekly goes European on us for the most part, and the New York Times was more impressed with nonfiction than fiction this time. For what it’s worth, here is my January 2017 book list, prepared for me and by me, but shared with you just in case you are interested.

Amazon

Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World Class Performers by Tim Ferriss (NF)

Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos (political humor) (NF)

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis (NF)

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Doug Preston (NF)

History of Wolves: A Novel by Emily Fridlund

The Bear and the Nightingale: A Novel by Katherine Arden

The Dry: A Novel by Jane Harper

Lillian Boxfish takes a Walk: A Novel by Kathleen Rooney

This is How it Always is: A Novel by Laurie Frankel

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society by Cordelia Fine

Human Acts: A Novel by Han King

Idaho: A Novel by Emily Rushkovitch

Indelible by Adelia Saunders

Huck Out West: A Novel by Robert Coover

The Midnight Cool by Lydia Peelie

Mystery, Thrillers, and Suspense

Idaho by Emily Ruskovitch

Her Every Fear: A Novel by Peter Swanson

The Girl Before: A Novel by J. P. Delaney

The Sleepwalker: A Novel by Chris Bonjalian

The Dry: A Novel by Jane Harper

Human Acts: A Novel by Han King

The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller

Fever Dream: A Novel by Samantha Schwelsin and Megan McDowell

The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America by Mark Sundeen (NF)

Independent Booksellers

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

The Muralist by B A Shapiro

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

The Seventh Plague by James Rollins

Turbo Twenty-Three by Janet Evanovitch

The Chemist by Stephanie Meyer

Publishers Weekly

Merrow by Ananda Braxton Smith

The Thieves of Threadneedle Street: The Incredible True Story of the American Forgers who nearly Broke the Bank of England by Nicholas Booth

Under the Midnight Sun by Kiego Higashino (whodunit)

An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy by Marc Levinson (NF)

The Man Who Wanted to Know Everything by D A Mishane (police procedural)

These are the Names by Tommy Wieringa (trans. from the Dutch by Sam Garett)

The Gentleman form Japan: An Inspector O Novel by James Church Minotaur

The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg (graphic novel)

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind by Siri Hustvelt (NF)

The Garden of Consolation by Parisa Reza (trans.from French by Adriana Hunter) (Iran)

Kill the Next One: A Novel by Federico Axat (trans. from the Spanish by David Frye)

The Return of Münchausen by Segizmund Zzhizhanovshy (trans. from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull)

The Hollow Man: A Novel by Rob McCarthy

Best Books Read by PW staff in 2016

The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

The ABC’s of Socialism edited by Bhaskar Sunkara, illustrated by Phil Wrigglesworth (NF)

We Want Everything by Anne Baletrini, trans by Matt Holden

The Obelisk Gate by N K Jemisin, (Volume 2) (Volume 1 published earlier, The Fifth Season)

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy (trans. by Tim Parks)

Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister (not out until March)(read in galleys)

A Beam of Light by Andrea Camilleri (trans. by Stephen Sartarelli)

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

The North Water by Ian McGuire

NYT Book Review

How to Survive a Plague by David Franco (NF)

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Márias

Judas by Amos Oz

Nonstop Metropolis, A New York City Atlas edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro (a most unusual atlas)

The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas

Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonesca (trans. by Megan McDowell)

Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez (trans. by Elizabeth Bryer)

Divorce is in the Air by Gonzalo Torné (trans. by Megan McDowell)

The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma by Ratika Kapur

A Want of Kindness by Joanne Limburg (Queen Anne)

The Country of the Blind by Edward Hoagland

Crime

Kill the Next One by Federico Axat

Out of Bounds by Val McDermid

Stone Coffin by Kjell Eriksson

Plaid and Plagiarism by Molly MacRae

Melt by Helen Hardt

The Moravian Night by Peter Handke

 

 

 

Conspiracy Theory and Political Identity

Paranoid Android

One of my news feeds on one of my devices brought this very interesting new article summarizing her polls about the correlations between conspiracy theory and political identity by Kathy Frankovic to my attention. My source tells us that she “is one of the world’s leading experts in public opinion polling. She has been an election and polling consultant for CBS News and other research organizations.” Find the full article at

https://today.yougov.com/news/2016/12/27/belief-conspiracies-largely-depends-political-iden/

These graphs, for the most part, back up what many of us already thought was true – that many of the conspiracy theories circulating right now are subscribed to by more voters on the right than on the left.  Empirical data is usually satisfying in offering backup for what we believe, unless, and in this case, you are from the right and you dismiss this all as counterfactual because it probably just comes from the left. What crazy times we live in? I did not foresee that the Fox News/ Talk Radio folks would lie so often that truths would seem to be mutable elements. Those on the right would say that I only like this data because it validates my worldview and that I am, once again, deluded. But I think history will be on my side in the end, for what that’s worth.

Belief in conspiracies largely depends on political identity

 

 

 

These polls shocked the media last week when they saw that 46% of Trump voters still believed that Clinton emails linked her to a pedophilia and child trafficking ring. What puzzles me is why the media was so surprised.

 

December 19, 2016 – Unfettered Capitalism Wins

It is December 19, 2016, the day America’s electors decide whether to break with tradition to keep a crazy authoritarian leader from running our nation or not. I am sure that no one is brave enough to keep this man out of office. My mind cannot help but move ahead into the future we are about to usher in, although our reasons are good ones because we are between a rock and a hard place. We take a chance on destroying our nation either way. But this is also a referendum on Capitalism and our global environments.

Even as I await the surely inevitable results an image comes alive in my mind of the conference table at the G8 Summit (yes we are back to eight nations because I am certain that DT will reinstate Russia). At one end of the conference table will be Putie and at the other end The Donald, finally face to face and, for the moment, sharing power. Each of these men is determined that fossil fuels and GDP and military might will still determine which nations are most powerful. If we switch away from fossil fuels how will the order of power among nations be determined?

So the G8 has changed its mission statement and has become the Board of Directors of Planet Earth. It plans to make sure that gas and oil continue to be a currency mill pumping money into the economies of the eight member nations. This old energy, fossil fuel energy will be used to bring back an Industrial age that has been rapidly morphing into something else, some je ne sais quoi. We know that industry is being turned over to robots, with less human fodder required to run the world’s engines of manufacturing and commerce, and soon even in the service sectors. Perhaps we will turn away from robotics for decades so that the Board can find a use for all of the world’s extraneous masses.

Because with an exploding world population and less and less work for humans to do what will the leaders do to keep the thumbs of  their power on the people, to keep them as useful consumers, but to never allow them to believe that they can have something for nothing. Life should be a “beach” for the wealthy, but for the poor it should be a struggle. We can’t have people enjoying themselves all over the place on the public dime. And that will not even be acceptable to poor folks. Most of us expect to have to pay our way in life. But we do not expect the obstacles to be so strong that we cannot get over or around them with a reasonable amount of effort.

So given all that, what will this G8 Board of Directors do in this all-Capitalist-all-the-time world if we are still earthbound with no technology to expand into space? I don’t think it will be pretty for anyone except the top 1%. Human life will be cheap. We will be cheap labor and no one will mind if our lives become hamster lives – running endlessly on a wheel to nowhere. Perhaps drugs will become plentiful, but I don’t think these folks will offer the new peasant class any way out of their servitude.

And when I say that life will be cheap that means that our new Board of Directors will not care if we live or die – in fairly large numbers. Disease may wipe out huge sectors of the population. Violence will also be quite common. Why would the Board require order when they do not have to live anywhere the rest of us live? Perhaps building walls will become common – walls to keep us out.

But what will the upper echelons do with their money in such a world. Perhaps they will not go this far just so they still have the world they are used to in which to enjoy their power and success and people to envy them and wish to join them. Perhaps there will be chances to climb out of the muck and revel in life at the top. Nine billion people is a really big audience though. Probably too big. Many of us will have to die to keep the population of the planet within comfortable limits. Perhaps the population will always be set to what it was in 1950.

Will there be any concession to keeping environmental conditions that offer beauty, biological diversity, and fresh air and water? If the Board of Directors is limited to living within the confines of this planet it is safe to say that they will have to find a way to balance their avarice with their survival. It will be interesting to see how they create that equilibrium.

A Capitalist dream may take over the minds and hearts of our new global Board of Directors for a while but even they will soon discover the disadvantages of fouling their own nest. Will they get it in time to save the planet? Maybe not. It does seem as if money makes you stupid.

[The Group of Eight (G8) refers to the group of eight highly industrialized nations—France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Japan, the United States, Canada, and Russia—that hold an annual meeting to foster consensus on global issues like economic growth and crisis management, global security, energy, and terrorism.]

http://www.cfr.org/international-organizations-and-alliances/group-eight-g8-industrialized-nations/p10647

 

 

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – Book

 

Commonwealth is a traditional English term for a political community founded for the common good.

The term literally meant “common well-being”.

There is, however, another form of commonwealth. The ever-helpful Dictionary.com offers this alternate definition: a “self-governing, autonomous political unit…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commonwealth

There are at least two commonwealths in the novel Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. In one instance the term most likely refers to the Commonwealth of Virginia (technically designated as such) and in the other instance it could describe the relationship that develops among the children in the two blended families we meet in this novel. If you have watched You’ve Got Mail as many times as I have, then you remember the scene in Kathleen Kelly/Meg Ryan’s little bookshop where Joe Fox/Tom Hanks is trying to hide his identity. When one of the children with him reveals that she is the aunt of the much older Joe Fox and the other young child reveals that he is Fox’s brother, Tom Hanks says, “We are an American family.” Well here in Commonwealth we find another such non-nuclear American family.

The beautiful Beverly is married to a man named Fix Keating, who is a policeman. When his second child is born an uninvited DA, Albert Cousins, crashes the party and that ends up being the catalyst that brings about the destruction of two marriages. The problem is that Beverly is a parent who really is not suited to parenting and her second husband, the wife stealer DA, Bert, is almost a completely absent father. These two parents reside in Virginia. Fix and the wife of Bert Cousins, Teresa reside in California. There are six children. Carolyn and Franny are the children of Beverly and Fix. Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie are the children of Bert and Teresa. After Beverly and Bert divorce their spouses and marry each other, Fix and Teresa both remarry but not to each other. So each child ends up with 3 sets of part time parents.

Two of the children, Carolyn and Franny live in Virginia and only visit California; the other four spend the school year in California and the summers in Virginia. It is difficult to keep these families straight when the children are young. Although each child has his or her own personality, I found it difficult to remember which child belonged to which parent.

The children have complicated emotional responses to their situation and to their natural and by-marriage siblings. But as they age they find that they become a sort of commonwealth of five and we learn who is who, so it is not necessary for readers to worry about those early confusions. There is, of course, a great tragedy that brings the children together in guilt. They are keeping a secret about what happened to the sixth child, which does not really get told until the parents are dying. In classic novels this would have been the key to deep psychological wounds in the children, but the tone of this novel is perhaps too superficial, or too modern, to go “there” in any meaningful way.

Ann Patchett is an excellent writer who knows how to tell a story but this story is just giving us details of a tale that is so common in modern life as to almost be cliché. I liked the children and some of the parents but the story is more a slice of life than any kind of social commentary. Do I think fiction has to be culturally relevant? Perhaps not, but novels that stand the test of time usually have a je ne sais quoi factor that raises them out of the ordinary. I enjoyed reading Commonwealth, but I am not sure that it will turn out to be a keeper.

 

I Feel a Great Disturbance in the Force

 

I know that Star Wars is not true. There may be a force that connects us all but it is not the force that the heroes access in Star Wars. But when that sinister Death Star destroyed an entire innocent planet it seemed a great metaphor for the terrible destruction we inflict on each other and we wish there was a rebellion we could join without violating our beliefs in a nation’s right to autonomy. It is not our fight, but it is our grief. We repeat the emotional impact of the words a great disturbance in the force because it sometimes expresses exactly how we feel.

Aleppo – Before

Aleppo – After

 

Residents inspect damage after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held Al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria February 4, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail – RTX25GU1

From Google Earth – After

We the People – Hypnotized

Watching DT choose his cabinet is sort of like rubbernecking at a terrible accident. You want to turn away but you can’t. You are hypnotized. All that past-its-prime testosterone on display, my, my. And American women actually thought it might be time to elect a woman President. Well our new president elect (not my president) is making it very clear that this is a male, excuse me, white male, dominated world. That makes the spectacle somehow even more fascinating. Watching the kiss-my-ring-courtiers-in-the-anteroom action at Trump tower made me think that I was back in a time dominated by white male kings.

Will this be a cabinet of serpents or of chess players? Probably both types of strategists will be represented in this crew of actors who are distinctly non-political, at least in the sense that we have no knowledge of how they will behave in our American political arena. That is what has us hypnotized. Are we watching the death throes of our American Democracy/Republic? Are we watching a sell-out to Russia? Are we watching savvy businessmen who can put the American economy back on top of the heap? Will there be any rules about what they can or cannot do as they supposedly are somewhat constrained by the American people and the Constitution, or will it be total unfettered Capitalism run amok? Are our American documents resilient enough to make it through to the other side of this onslaught or will we finally be only the Plutocracy we seem to have been headed towards all along?

Yes it is all astonishing, and because we have no idea how this will go, we are somewhat convinced that a wait-and-see attitude might be best. But our brains are screaming that this cannot turn out well. Letting this crew get their hands on American government will turn us into a nation we hardly recognize. Letting these admittedly very successful, but very intolerant and opinionated people control our fate will not bode well for “we the people.” After all, DT has already told us he does not respect us because we are not successful.

Can we shake ourselves out of our torpor? Can we come out of the tabloid trance induced by our daily news? Perhaps we could start with flash mobs, and work our way up to organized demonstrations that will at least register on the Washington Richter Scale. If we come out in large enough numbers then it might get through to the world that we do not all feel comfortable with our new administration and we wish to be heard. I am as bad as everyone else as I will not be putting together any demonstrations any time soon. It’s very cold here.

(Side note) At least it feels like the Republicans we used to love to oppose in Congress are also just a bunch of annoying fleas to these “he-men” that surround Trump. (Yes I know there are women but only in posts that are traditionally considered feminine.) So although these guys in Congress talk about repealing Obamacare and turning Medicare into a voucher program and privatizing Social Security we have no clue if the new King and his court are even paying any attention to these peons who are so excited to be finally in charge of remaking America in the Conservative image. Does DT have the same agenda as the Republicans? They seem to think so, but I have my doubts.

It is all so engrossing, and yet allowing ourselves to be onlookers is dangerous when our daily lives could be so deeply affected by what our “emperor” decides. Will it be too late once the president elect becomes the actual president?